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Lessons Gleaned From the Louisiana School Voucher Ruling

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By C. Ed Massey, President of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) and Member of the Boone County (KY) Schools Board of Education

A Louisiana circuit court judge recently ruled that the diversion of public tax dollars dedicated for public education to private school vouchers is unconstitutional. While this particular battle is far from over — Gov. Bobby Jindal and State Superintendent John White have vowed to appeal — this decision is a major victory for all school boards and public education advocates across the United States.

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) supported our state affiliate, the Louisiana School Boards Association, because we saw the case as a direct threat to public education. The pro-school choice advocates were flooded with outside money and have put forth a sophisticated public relations operation. The facts of the case are complex — another issue brought up in the court case was whether the legislature had the ability to appropriately vet the proposal before it was pushed through to a vote in the wee hours.

This legislation effectively created a two-tiered school system for Louisiana's neediest students and would have cost the state's public schools in excess of $25 million — close to $12 million from the state share of the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) and, more importantly, about $13 million from local school districts' share of the MFP. This year, the voucher law is allowing nearly 5,000 students who formerly attended public schools rated C, D or F, and possibly some students who had never attended public schools, to enroll in private and parochial schools at the state's expense. Many of these are religious based and some teach extremist religious philosophies. Under the plan, a school that enrolled less than 40 students from the voucher program would have virtually no accountability for their learning, and all schools would be subject to only minimal financial accounting standards.

I traveled to Baton Rouge to hand-deliver a letter of support from NSBA and attended the trial. While we appreciate the sincerity of some of the parents who are seeking other educational opportunities, we as school boards must focus on providing the best public education possible to all children. Private and parochial schools can, simply put, pick and choose the students they want to attend. They do not have to hire certified teachers or administrators, and they are under no obligation to provide a sound, research-based curriculum. And we know from other cities' experiments that vouchers leave behind many disadvantaged students, particularly students with disabilities, because private schools may not accept them or do not offer the services they need.

We have a moral and legal duty to provide a free and appropriate education to all children. To do so requires resources. School board members know what works, including early education and school readiness, high standards in core subjects, a focus on 21st century skills and college readiness, a strong system of interventions for students who are falling behind, parents and communities who are engaged in their local schools, and highly qualified staff. And we know that many of our schools need major changes. But if we allow the federal or state governments to divert funds away from public education we will not be able to fulfill that duty.

Louisiana already has a school choice system that operates through community public schools and charter schools. Federal and state laws hold these schools accountable through annual tests in core subjects for students in grades three through eighth grades and in core subjects in high school. These test scores help assign school performance scores, district performance scores, letter grades to individual schools, and letter grades to school districts.

This first-round victory should be pronounced and celebrated. Also, school officials in other states should take notice that this fight is far from over. NSBA will continue to support our colleagues at LSBA, and we all must learn from the good work of Louisiana and continue to fight against the diversion of public funds away from public schools.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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